Noday - Enter Dark Mode in Iceland
Iceland’s unofficial tagline and ultimate cliché is the land of ice and fire. This is an obvious reference to the country’s many glaciers and active volcanos. But a rather more apt description would be the land of contrasts. This is a place with contrasting extremes, not only in terms of glacial icecaps and fiery lava but also the cold air vs. hot geothermal springs as well as the endless light in summer and long hours of darkness in winter.
It’s a common misunderstanding that Icelanders suffer through their dark winters in moody depression, wishing only for a new spring. While most Icelanders will celebrate more daylight, more warmth and the midnight sun of summer, deep down, they adore their dark winters. Why? Because of the lights of course.
Look on the light side
With great darkness comes great light. Ask any Icelander, there’s nothing like a crisp, cloudless, pitch-black moonless night in winter. That’s when you’ll find Icelanders putting on their winter coats and heading outside to catch a glimpse of the stars and the northern lights. With shorter days come drawn-out sunrises and sunsets and the sky around Reykjavik often becomes an illuminated fantasy that seemingly lasts forever. But it’s not just the natural light display in winter that makes it a favorite among light lovers everywhere. With such little daylight and so much darkness, Icelanders have made lighting something of an art form. Already in September, fairy lights, beautiful lamps and candles pop up everywhere and come Christmas, Icelanders are certainly thankful for their cheap electricity as they adorn their houses, gardens, balconies and patios with endless light displays. Fireworks and bonfires are a whole thing in Iceland and we’ll get to that and then there’s the winter and light festivals all over the country that celebrate art, light installations and music, either as the daylight is coming or going. It’s a good reminder to celebrate what you have at hand at any given moment, the changing of the seasons that certainly change dramatically in these parts, and the attitude of humility and awe when it comes to the natural order of things.
The northern lights season in Iceland
Much has been written on the northern lights and we’ve written some of it in detail. Read our special blog about the northern lights, the Star of the Show for an in-depth guide to the aurora borealis, where and when to see them, how to photograph them and some helpful tips on your northern lights excursions. To sum up what the fuzz is about, you could say that the northern lights are such a spectacular phenomenon that they are simply indescribable. They are electrically charged particles hitting the Earth’s magnetosphere which results in a light display of neon colors of green, purple and blue hues. They are there all year round in varying intensity, but they are only visible on dark, cloudless nights. When the activity is intense, the sky fills with dancing, swirling lights that defy all logic. They are silent, harmless and somehow otherworldly and magical. This is one natural phenomenon that pictures or words can never do justice. If there’s one thing you should see with your own eyes while in Iceland, it’s the northern lights.
The Imagine Peace Tower
On October 9 every year since 2007, a tower of light is lit on a small island just off the cost of Reykjavik. This is the Imagine Peace Tower in Viðey island, Yoko Ono’s memorial to her late husband John Lennon. Real Lennon fans will note that October 9 is John Lennon’s birthday. The tower is lit until December 8, the date he was shot and killed outside the Dakota Building in New York City. It is then lit again from December 31 until January 6, the Icelandic Epiphany and again for one week around the spring equinox. The Imagine Peace Tower is an art installation and memorial made up of 15 strong searchlights that create a column of light in the dark winter sky off the coast of Reykjavik, a real light in the darkness as a reminder of Lennon’s fight for peace and his iconic song Imagine. Look towards Mount Esja from Reykjavik and witness this spectacular and powerful light installation.
Christmas in Iceland
You may think you know Christmas and that this part doesn’t need explaining. But in all likelihood, Christmas in Iceland is a bit different than what you may be used to. For starters, Icelanders have not one but 13 santas, or Yule Lads as they’re often referred to in English. They are the sons of trolls and come down from the mountains, one by one in advent and bring treats to little children while they sleep. They are mischievous, funny and demand various treats in return, depending on their personal preferences such as candles or skyr. As a result, the Christmas season or advent begins full force in early December and way before then, in November, lights and decorations are well underway. Advent-lights adorn windows, string lights pop up on balconies everywhere, towns decorate their streets as the days get darker and darker. Speaking of dark days…
The shortest day of the year in Iceland
So how dark does it actually get during this darkest hour? December 21 is the darkest day of the year in Iceland. On this day, Reykjavik gets a total of 4 hours and nearly 8 minutes of daylight. But that’s Reykjavik, in the far southwest of this rather large island. In Grímsey, the northernmost populated place in Iceland, the daylight is only 2 hours and 13 minutes. The sunrises and sunsets are a drawn out phenomenon during this time as the sun barely makes it over the horizon. These golden hours stretch out creating a beautiful setting on the winter sky and ground below with long shadows and crisp light. In a way, the little daylight we do get during this time, is simply glorious.
New Year's Eve in Iceland
As far as (manmade) light displays go, nothing comes close to New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik. During the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve the sound of the odd firework will sound in the peaceful residential neighborhoods of the capital. This is the little testing period, where you decide to just try out your home-made fireworks launch pad or test the brilliance of a certain type of fireworks you just purchased. This annoys at least half the population that finds this to be an unnecessary disturbance of the peace but come New Year’s Eve, everyone is set to enjoy the thrills of the fireworks. The entire population will be watching the weather forecast for this one night, hoping for clear skies and just a healthy breeze. The breeze is necessary to blow away the insane amount of smoke that comes with this blowout to keep good visibility. Most families will gather in large numbers for a proper feast around 20:00, after which they head out to their local bonfire to sing songs and greet neighbors. The fireworks really get going after that, leading up to around 22:30 when the annual satirical program is aired on television. Nothing is as intensely viewed (and often harshly criticized) in Iceland as this one episode of comic relief summing up the year that is nearly over. At 23:30 sharp, the program ends and so does the deafening silence that came with it. From 23:30 until 00:00 the fireworks grow and at 00:00 everyone blows up their absolute biggest firework resulting in a mega light show all over the city. The entire sky is filled with fireworks in every direction, and it takes a while to finish. At approximately 01:00 in the brand-new year, most have finished their supplies and settled down again although it will take days for it to completely die off with another little highlight six days later…
January 6 - Epiphany
Remember that thing about the 13 Yule Lads that come down from the mountain one by one in advent? Well, they also go back one by one and the last one heads back up to the mountains on January 6 every year. That’s not all because January 6 is also rich with folklore and traditions in Iceland. This is a night of magic, when the elves are about, a time to celebrate the natural forces and the mystical aspect of life. It marks the end of the long Christmas period with bonfires, fireworks and songs and chants about elves and magic. It’s hard to explain and even harder to sum up as a holistic event but suffice to say that it is a magical celebration of light and a way to wrap up the holiday season.
Over the long winter in Iceland, a number of festivals pop up to entertain, enlighten and expand the horizon of a small population in the north. Festivals to suit nearly every interest can be found all over the country but honorable mentions include the Night of Lights in Reykjanesbær, Dark Music Days in Reykjavik and the Art in the Light in Seyðisfjörður. They are local celebrations that either celebrate the coming or going of daylight and the darkness but at their core, they are an excuse to meet people, enjoy the moment and lighten up the day.
Come March 20, Icelanders let out a sigh of relief with the spring equinox. It’s a fleeting moment when the day and night are approximately equally long. After a long winter, the promise of spring is in the air and while there has been plenty to enjoy over the winter, nearly everyone is ready for a little more daylight. Day by day the daylight grows and the temperature rises much to everyone’s delight. For those that grow up and live their whole lives with these extremes and the distinct changes of the seasons, they are a normal and celebrated part of life. Take a leaf from our book and enjoy whatever is laid out in front of you each time. There’s always some magic to be found in the moment.